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Editorial: Teacher pensions have to take a hit

BarbarByrd-Bennett speaks newly renovated Jones College Prep High School Tuesday.  |  Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at the newly renovated Jones College Prep High School on Tuesday. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

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Updated: September 23, 2013 2:25PM

The Civic Federation gets it right in a report due out Thursday when it points out a failure by the Chicago Public Schools to detail a plan for cutting Chicago teacher pension costs.

Top CPS officials and the mayor, especially in the last few months, have uttered the phrase “pension reform” innumerable times, citing it as the main solution to Chicago’s budget woes. After a three-year partial pension holiday, CPS’ pension bill goes up by $404 million this year.

But Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her top lieutenants never spell out publicly what reform they want the state legislature, which sets pension benefits, to pass — raise the retirement age? lower retiree cost-of-living increases? increase employee contributions?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel went to Springfield in May 2012 and laid out an aggressive and detailed pension-cutting plan for all city unions, including CPS. But in the last year, those details have rarely been discussed publicly by CPS, which he controls.

For this omission, CPS gets a big rap on the knuckles by Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a non-partisan government research group, in its analysis of CPS’ proposed 2014 budget, which is up for a vote next week.

“The [school] district knew this budget crisis was coming and should have been aggressively advocating for their own pension reform proposal,” Msall said in a news release. “Silence on these critical issues is a grave disservice to the district’s students, parents, teachers and taxpayers.”

We support pension cost-cutting as strongly as Msall does — a bitter pill for teachers but an absolutely essential one for the long-term financial health of the school system and pension fund itself.

But we don’t share the Civic Federation’s enthusiasm for severe knuckle-rapping.

Emanuel and CPS want pension reform desperately — but apparently they think the best strategy is to work behind the scenes rather than to make themselves vulnerable to attacks by the Chicago Teachers Unions by laying out a detailed cost-cutting plan.

There’s logic to that approach.

The leadership in Springfield has long made it clear it wants to first reform the state retirement systems, including for teachers outside Chicago. The hope is to get that passed and then, in short order, apply the same or a similar model to CPS and other city unions. If the state cuts pensions for some teachers, the argument will be, it should cut them for all.

From CPS’ perspective, there is little to be gained — and much to be lost — to be out front calling for severe cuts to pensions, particularly in a turbulent and contentious year that included a teachers strike and a vote to close 49 elementary schools and one high school program.

Moreover, CPS has for the last year been trying to negotiate a pension bill with the teachers union. That has produced little, but talk of a detailed pension-cutting plan outside the negotiations certainly wouldn’t have helped.

This strategy, of course, relies on getting the state Legislature to act — and the mayor and CPS should be doing far more to win over legislators.

As lawmakers dawdle, CPS makes severe cuts to staff and programs across the city.

As lawmakers dawdle, CPS does damage to schools and children it may never be able to reverse.

A strategy to pass pension is in place, as is clear evidence of a pressing need to lower pension costs.

All that’s left is for the Legislature to act.

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